Secrets and Lies

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The one thing I clearly remember about going to see the Danish film The Celebration back in 1999 at the Music Box Theatre was that my friend Niels, who was originally from Copenhagen, kept bursting out laughing throughout the screening even as the rest of us in the audience sat rapt and riveted by the horrific family tragedy unfolding on screen.  I remember shushing him several times, because, frankly, people were getting ticked off (and we were in the smaller theater as well so even the most restrained guffaw became an irritating echo).  But his reaction was probably typically Danish – in the film and in it’s theatrical adaptation by British playwright David Eldridge, Festen (the film’s original title in Danish), now receiving an astounding, triumphant Midwest premiere from Steep Theatre, the terrible, gut-wrenching revelations of family secrets and lies are intermingled with dancing, singing, laughter, festivity, a culturally-programmed emotional response filled with denial and delusion.  And thanks to Jonathan Berry’s moody, confident direction, and the exceptional ensemble cast, especially the magnificent Kevin Stark, the play is both emotionally draining and terrifying, exacting and suffocating, like a bizarre blend of August: Osage County meets Paranormal Activity.  In short, Steep’s Festen is superb, a must-see for everyone who seeks out unsettling theater.

Festen was the first film made under the cinematic movement Dogme 95, led by director Thomas Vinterberg and his pal, Lars von Trier, which rebelled against what they saw as Hollywoodization of film-making.  So Dogme 95 films were shot with hand-held cameras on location so as not to utilize any sets or props, and shunned cinematographic enhancements (such as lens filters) and post-production sound mixing, a “minimalist” approach to filmmaking. In the play, as in the film, a family gathers at a resort for the patriarch’s 60th birthday party, coming right after the funeral of the eldest daughter who committed suicide.  During the dinner party, family secrets are unveiled by the eldest son, Christian (Stark).  The premise could easily have deteriorated into overwrought daytime television soap opera melodramatics, but Eldridge’s tight, crisp, suspenseful playwriting keeps the emotions real and the characters nuanced.  I still don’t think it’s a perfect script – similar to the film, I think the father, Helge (played with verve by the terrific Norm Woodel, who can be both imposing and sympathetic at the same time) is still a baffling character with regards to his underlying motivations; and the last minute appearance of Gbatokai, the African boyfriend of the surviving daughter Helene, is quite gratuitous (as if he is in the play only to visually reinforce the family’s question to the flighty, bleeding heart liberal Helene about her socio-anthropology studies – how many African nations has she been banned from?)

But the real achievement in Steep’s production, in my opinion, is Berry’s cinematic, atmospheric direction, greatly aided by Sarah Hughey’s brilliantly-conceived lighting design full of shadows and expressive shadings, which both honors the play’s filmic roots but also maximizes its theatrical potential. I also love how Berry uses the small, intimate Steep Theatre space to full, devastating effect – Christian is beaten up by his disbelieving brother Michael inches from my shoes; emotionally explosive scenes taking place in different bedrooms between Christian and the maid Pia, Michael and his wife Mette, and Helene and the receptionist Lars are all staged on and around one bed; the flummoxing continuation of the partying after the dinner party recriminations takes place in the aisles.

The cast is uniformly excellent with memorable characterizations (Toby Nicholson’s senile grandfather is hilarious; Alex Gillmor’s receptionist Lars is sinister and conniving; Sasha Gioppo’s Mette is vividly troubled; Marika Engelhardt’s Pia is seducer and household power player), but Stark as Christian is unforgettable as both ensemble anchor and narrative catalyst.  Looking like a younger, sexier Klaus Maria Brandauer, Stark paints a heartwrenching portrait of a man who has to live a life burdened by the secrets of his family and his childhood.  Every shrug, every stooped shoulder, every time he puts his hands in his trouser pocket, every time he looks at his brother or sister, communicates the hurt weariness and undeniable scarring of a victim.  Stark is riveting in both his big, emotional scenes at the dinner table, and his quieter ones, such as when his childhood friend Kim, the resort’s chef, exhorts him to not waver after seeing his family’s reactions to his revelation.  It’s the best performance I’ve seen in the current Chicago theater season.

Festen has been deservedly, universally acclaimed and it’s selling out Steep’s house, so get your tickets now!  It has been extended until July 10 at 1115 W. Berwyn Ave.  Do not miss this show!

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